Tree and density advocates are at odds with housing developers and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (DCI) over the city’s latest draft tree protection code. The clear cuts made over the past decade on lots undergoing development in the Seattle neighborhood of Meadowbrook offer a case study of why.
The code, drafted by DCI, is under review by the Seattle City Council’s Land Use Committee and is expected to be voted on May 9. While the clear cuts are not unique to Meadowbrook, in the Lake City neighborhood, they demonstrate the deep divide between some advocates and housing developers.
Initially, a grove of 29 trees was cut down to make way for eight new town homes despite one city planner — no longer with the department — arguing that protecting the grove was “good habitat science” and that the lot could provide the same amount of housing without removing any of the trees.
Fast forward to more recent cuts and you’ll need a tree and density advocate like Sandy Shettler with Friends of the Urban Forest to identify remains of five Western red cedars and one native Pacific dogwood cut on a lot about to be developed before a city arborist could inspect them.
While a city arborist can’t require such trees be retained, Shettler says, “Once in a while they may be asked to do so.”
One amendment that tree and density advocates propose for the draft tree code is that all trees be included in site plans to assess how they might be retained with alternative creative building designs. The lot where the six exceptional trees were cut has several non-exceptional Douglas firs remaining, but they’ll be removed to build a single-family home and two accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and detached accessory units (DADUs). If the new homes weren’t spread out and the developer opted for a more flexible design, the trees could be retained, say tree and density advocates, who use both words to argue for dense — but affordable — housing that incorporates enough canopy to ensure a healthy, climate-resilient city and meet the city’s canopy goals.
Embedded in the debate are unanswered questions about whether the city can retain and grow enough trees to provide equitable canopy for all while allowing housing for a growing population at a range of incomes.
An estimated 70 percent of Seattle’s canopy is on residential lots. Current code allows developers to cut down the majority of trees if they believe the trees interfere with reaching the lot’s development potential. The proposed code would guarantee 85 percent lot coverage.
The expansion in opportunities for development comes in spite of a canopy assessment released in March that concluded that, between 2016 and 2021, the city saw a 255-acre net loss in residential zones and natural areas. Couple that loss with new statewide middle housing legislation legalizing four-plexes in cities with populations greater than 75,000 and six-plexes within a quarter of a mile of mass transit if two of the units are affordable, and tree and density advocates are concerned they may lose the battle to preserve tree canopy.
The canopy assessment demonstrates that, in order to achieve an equitable, citywide canopy cover of 30 percent, per the goals of the 2035 comprehensive plan, a significant number of trees on private property must be retained and more planted.
Portland passed additional legislation to mitigate tree loss after it adopted middle housing two years ago, requiring a 20 percent tree allowance in multifamily areas and 40 percent on lots with between one and four units in family residential areas.
Developers are also weighing in on the draft code. Earlier this spring, the Master Builders Association formed an alliance with market-rate and affordable housing providers, including Legacy Group Capital, the American Institute of Architects, the Low Income Housing Institute and Habitat for Humanity, among others. The alliance calls on city leaders “to create a tree policy that supports both housing and trees,” borrowing the narrative tree and density advocates have used for years.
The alliance says the largest loss of trees have been in city parks and natural areas due to climate change. Natural areas and parks have taken a hit — with the loss of 2,885 acres — but the greatest loss, according to the Office of Sustainability and Environment, has been in neighborhood and multifamily residential areas, with respective losses of 7,121 acres and 952 acres.
Testifying before the Land Use Committee, Master Builders Association spokesperson Aliesha Ruiz said the draft tree code “is off to a decent start, but doesn’t go far enough to give builders the full predictability they need to provide additional housing. Predictability is key for all builders, whether market rate or affordable.”
Asked to clarify, Ruiz wrote in an email that “unpredictable policies put project timelines and financing at risk and can make new housing unfeasible. Builders need a way to know if a tree can be removed without negotiating with City staff.”
The draft tree code would lower the upper limit for exceptional trees, from 30 inches in diameter to 24 inches, and continue protections for heritage trees, which are those of exceptional size, form or rarity; landmarks of a community; or recognized by virtue of age or contribution to a historic structure. However, heritage trees make up less than 1 percent of the city’s canopy.
Tree and density advocates want the code to be amended to require developers to maximize the retention of existing trees six inches in diameter, with adequate space for them to grow and survive. Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen, who serve on the Land Use Committee, which is debating the draft tree code, want a new section added requiring a tree and landscaping plan that details trees proposed for removal and trees to be planted onsite and offsite. Pedersen recommended an additional amendment to replace the proposed 85 percent lot coverage with the current floor area ratio standard.
Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable homes in King County and around the world, say its main barriers are land use codes and funding. CEO Brett D’Antonio supports the new draft tree code but added that a smaller, but significant, barrier “is the tree code as it exists today.”
When the draft tree code was announced by Mayor Bruce Harrell and Strauss, Habitat for Humanity “applauded” both “for working to strike the right balance between the need for more housing and the need to protect our urban tree canopy: “We know that trees and housing can co-exist and we look forward to being able to continue to maintain that balance in our projects under this proposal.”
Habitat for Humanity protects mature trees when it can. A South Park project with 13 two-bedroom units was built around an existing hemlock. The team behind a Ballard project of seven three-bedroom town homes chose to forego an additional unit to protect a grove of five cedars.
When the City Council adopted ADU reforms in 2019, the purpose was to remove barriers to production. One new option the legislation unlocked was the opportunity to have two ADUs on one lot, if the second ADU is reserved for a low-income household or adheres to green building standards. Tree and density advocates hoped developers would choose the low-income option, but to date no market-rate developer or property owner has done so, according to DCI.
Bryan Stevens, a spokesperson for the department, said the affordable option wasn’t expected to appeal to individual property owners because of a state law that requires the units stay affordable for 50 years. Instead, Stevens said, it became an option for affordable housing providers who may add ADUs to single-family properties.
Seattle Fair Growth housing advocate Sarajane Siegfriedt pointed out that affordable, low-income housing requires dedicated federal, state and city dollars but is not specifically addressed in the draft tree code. She suggested requiring developers to set aside a reasonable portion of their townhome or apartment units for those earning 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), as opposed to paying a fee in lieu, which can delay the creation of low-income housing for years.
The Urban Forestry Commission (UFC) wants to better define the connection between the tree code and affordable housing. Set up by the city to advise the mayor and City Council regarding policies surrounding the protection and management of trees, the UFC sent a letter to Seattle’s elected officials expressing disappointment “with the City’s policy development process.” The group noted that the proposed tree code “appears to have been developed behind closed doors without substantive participation by the Commission and other stakeholders.” The UFC recommended extending tree replacement exemptions to affordable housing developments when at least 50 percent of the units are rented to households earning 60 percent of the AMI or sold to households making 80 percent of AMI or less.
However, the UFC said its members were “unclear how this ordinance supports affordable housing.” The UFC wants to see the code strengthen the connection between the proposed changes and affordable housing production.
The UFC also asked how the proposed tree code will treat the city’s environmental justice-priority communities, which are statistically more likely to have lower canopy cover and a higher proportion of residents of color or residents with lower incomes.
“Prioritizing tree planting in conjunction with development in these communities should be a priority for the City,” UFC members wrote. They strongly recommend revising the purpose and intent of the code so the public better understands why tree regulations and protections are necessary and how they’ll be realized.
In the meantime, clear cuts of trees are happening all over the city, from Lake City to the Rainier Valley. June BlueSpruce, who lives in southeast Seattle, a designated environmental justice-priority area, told the Land Use Committee that such priority areas have lost trees at a faster rate than other areas in the last five years. If the city wants to live up to its commitment to environmental justice, she suggested following the UFC’s recommendations, “who should have been involved in the process all along.”
She added, “It takes creativity to design buildings so they accommodate mature trees, but it can be done. Developers can make adequate profits and also contribute to the well-being of our communities.”
Many tree advocates question whether DCI is the city agency best suited for the job of enforcing the tree ordinance and protecting trees, given that its fees are derived from building permits.
BlueSpruce, like other tree advocates, suggests the city create an Urban Forestry Division within DCI as recommended in a separate budget provision or, alternatively, expand urban forestry staff and responsibility in the Office of Sustainability and Environment, for independent oversight of trees.
DCI currently has two arborists to review site plans for the entire city.
Read more of the May 3-9, 2023 issue.